Urban Area Perspective – Seattle

By Joseph Straw

What has made the Seattle region such a leader in public-private partnerships?

I’d like to think that it was word-of-mouth based on our actions. It’s one thing to try and market yourself, but actions are much better marketing than any kind of campaign. And a lot of credit for our regional collaboration really goes to a lot of western Washington communities, not just Seattle. I can give some examples of how we’ve done things in a really regional nature. We’ve developed something called the Regional Disaster Plan for public and private organizations in King County. There are 150 signatories to a plan that includes an omnibus and financial agreement—in other words 150 attorneys for various agencies all signed off on this mutual aid pact about how we would coordinate and how we would share each other’s resources.

In the late 1990s James Lee Witt, when he was Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, tried to put a stronger emphasis on mitigation. So he chose Seattle as one of the communities to put seed money into specifically for mitigation under Project Impact, which  wound up giving us the opportunity to create a home retrofit program, made for easy over-the-counter building permits, instructions for how to retrofit your home, etc., and those plans were in turn shared with all neighboring jurisdictions that were interested in getting involved.
Then shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security sent assessors to all 175 major urban areas around the country to say, “Well, how would you have handled that scope of a disaster?” And not surprisingly, many urban areas around the country had some specific areas that could use some improvement, like mass care and resource management. That was the genesis of the Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant program, and Seattle was chosen as one of 10, or I should say the Seattle area—the Puget Sound Region—was chosen as one of 10 areas throughout the country, I think based on that track record of project impact and the Regional Disaster Plan and good cooperative working relationships to be given several million dollars to bring our plans up to a catastrophic level. Not just the typical kind of Nisqually Earthquake-level that we had before.
And I guess finally who I have to give credit to is just our local citizenry. We’ve got a lot of very well educated and extremely involved and civic-minded people who live here.

What are some of your region’s most valuable lessons-learned in forging partnerships?

Well I can’t remember who coined it first but I live by “United we stand, divided we fall.” Most of the disasters for which we plan, even if they’re not of the catastrophic Katrina or Gulf Coast kind of level, they generally don’t stop at our own borders, and so what we do to mitigate and to plan for and prepare and respond and recover has to be done in a regional nature. Additionally, and I know that Congress is looking at this right now, and that’s the cost efficiency of shared resources. It’s a travesty that we had to wait so long to demand interoperability with federally grant-funded equipment, but it just makes good sense. And then finally, plans in my view make for good intentions. It’s a statement of a good intention. But planning is what makes for success. You’ve created the relationship. People are always going to be in charge of response and recovering. And simply reading a plan doesn’t give you that appreciation of what your neighbor’s capabilities or weaknesses are, and how you can maximize the use of regional resources.

What is the greatest challenge of your office’s mission?

I think that’s three-fold. One is the scope of the threats themselves and the risks and the hazards, especially because they tend to evolve. Unlike earthquakes, which we’ve learned a lot more about—the complexity and science of earthquakes—in the last 10 to 20 years, the risks associated with acts of terrorism are constantly evolving, and so your best plans from the last bad thing that happened won’t have as much to do with the next bad thing that’s going to happen. So the changing nature of threats I think is a huge one.

For those of us who have been in the business for a long time, another challenge is the attrition of players, the Baby Boom has a bunch of people retiring. We’ve got to replace all those people with good, competent people who need to have seasoning and experience—people who understand the threats and the risks. There’s just a constant revolving door of people that you need to catch up with.
And then third, we always fight the battle of enough resources to accomplish our basic mission, let alone anything new on the plate.


What would you characterize as your region’s greatest success in emergency management?

I’m going to give you a couple but I’ll put them in order. I am so proud of the development of that Regional Disaster Plan. There was no congressional mandate. There was no statewide mandate. It was just a bunch of us at the local level who said that we need to act like regional partners in preparedness and response and recovery. So I’m extremely proud of the ability to put together a regional plan that involved both public and private agencies. Secondly I would point to the collaboration that we’re currently enjoying on the projects associated with our federal Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant – we’ve got a 21-member regional catastrophic planning team that oversees eight separate, distinct unique projects.

And from the moment that we constituted that group, every vote that we’ve taken on membership, on charter, on charter amendments, on projects, has been a unanimous vote. And that team has been a public-private partnership. It represents many different disciplines; we have tribal representatives; I’m very proud of that. Then finally I’m a big mitigation fan, so I want to give credit to people who I inherited this program from regarding Project Impact, the Home Retrofit Program, they used some of their grant money to do non-structural hazard mitigation throughout the public schools, and they developed much, much better hazard mapping, on which we’ve been able to do much better planning based on that good information.


What is an example of a mitigation measure in a household or a public school?

Non-structural mitigation—especially in our schools—we have a bunch of older schools that used to have flush tanks overhead that were not secured, so that in an earthquake those could have fallen an certainly would have killed if not severely injured students.

How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change, if anything?
We have enjoyed excellent relationships with our colleagues at FEMA Region X, with the Coast Guard, other members of the military, and that goes to the point I made earlier about how plans are good intentions but planning makes for the relationships where you get to know one another’s’ resources. So I would characterize our office’s relationship with our federal partners as absolutely excellent. We’ve had many years of completely open dialogue and training, and we practice together. Now even more so because of the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant.

What are your office’s primary goals going forward?

Continuation as far as recovery planning goes. We have a basic Emergency Support Function-14 in our plan that puts a structure in place to take us from the response phase of an incident through short- and long-term recovery. But there’s a lot more work that we need to put into post-disaster recovery planning, from housing and job reconstitution, and infrastructure rebuilding, that’s going to be a major initiative for us. Also, the regional catastrophic grant will go away in a few years. When it does, by the time it does, we need to have institutionalized an ongoing commitment to that kind of regional partnership.

So I think we’ve got the willing players at the table, but the planning grant has enabled us to actually produce something, so we need not to slide backward when that goes away. Another major thing is determining how we’ll make better use of social media. For instance many of our departments already blog or share information over Twitter and Facebook and all that sort of thing, but we really aren’t conversational with the community at this point yet. So I think government in general—and we’re included in that—needs to figure out how we’re going to make the best possible use of the ability to be in conversation with your community. I guess another initiative that we fit into at a national level is capabilities assessment. Congress is interested in learning how have we bought down risk and built up capability with all the homeland security grants. But those grants only account for 2 or 3 percent of what cumulatively local and state governments put into capabilities. We need to do a better job at showing how we have assessed our capabilities and measured the results of those investments.



The Magazine — Past Issues


Beyond Print

SM Online

See all the latest links and resources that supplement the current issue of Security Management magazine.